If Microsoft releases Internet Explorer 8 this week — as expected — then the company will likely be congratulated by many for doing the right thing and finally adding support for web standards to its browser.
For years, Microsoft has gone its own way online with its own IE rendering engine. That's forced web developers to either build one version of their web sites for IE and another for all those other browsers that do implement HTML and CSS in a broadly consistent way or simply to target IE and get to the others later — or never. That's distorted the market.
When IE 8 does arrive, though, whatever standards support it offers isn't going to satisfy the browser company whose complaint over lack of web standards support and bundling of IE with Windows spurred the European Union into investigating Microsoft last year. That case has now attracted the backing of browser competitors Google and Mozilla.
Opera Software chief executive Jon von Tetzchner told The Reg that while Microsoft is headed in the right direction, IE continues to undermine open standards on the web.
The fundamental problem is Microsoft's decision to allow users to continue to view billions of old pages optimized for non-compliant IE 6 and 7 that would otherwise be scrambled in IE 8.
As far as von Tetzchner is concerned, that's not just bad for companies like Opera that must continue wasting time and money simply updating sites built for IE 6 and 7 to work with their browsers. It also means that Microsoft continues to exert undue and damaging influence over the web.
"We want to see there's competition and a referee — to make sure everybody follows the rules and ensure there's competition in the market," von Tetzchner said.
Von Tetzchner has little truck with the dual rendering approach Microsoft's taken on IE, and he clearly believes Microsoft could have leveraged its size to kill the issue once and for all with IE 8.
"Microsoft has a unique position — the fact is, as soon as they have a browser out there they get massive volumes, people are going to code for them. It's only a matter of time. It's a lot more difficult for the competition," he said.
But the company's size and presence has a negative side. Von Tetzchner is worried that after Microsoft's hiatus on browser development in the early 2000s, the company is back in the game and that it can crush the competition by pumping out IE through Windows desktops.
This raises the further risk that the web becomes distorted, as innovation will be dictated at the pace Microsoft chooses to move at and on technologies that it favors. It's noteworthy that while Microsoft has adopted the World Wide Web Consortium's (W3C's) HTML 5 and CSS 2.1 in IE 8, it has not employed Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG) that has been employed by Mozilla, Google, and Opera and is also from the W3C stable.
"The risk we are seeing is Microsoft is back and now working on the browser and the fact they didn't work on the browser gave room for the competition… if Microsoft provides a better product you might see a reversal of the trend — it's a dangerous thing for the internet," he said.